“He went to a fee-paying school in town,” Emma Fitzgerald said of her only brother, “while me and my sisters all went to the free non-fee paying school. The budget for his education was unquestioned. The money was found. And he even repeated his final year of school, again at an expensive fee-paying institution.”
It was a little more than a week ago, and I was having dinner with Fitzgerald and her collaborators Aine Stapleton and Carl Harrison in the Lower East Side, near where they’ve been developing their newest work Wage at Abrons Arts Center, where it plays through Sunday, Sept. 23 (tickets $12 women, $15 men). As Fitzgerald and Stapleton, the two Irish dance artists have been making what you might call “subtly militant” feminist performance for several years, their work particularly critical of the sort of chauvinism prevalent in Irish society, as Fitzgerald was demonstrating with the story about her brother.
It’s perhaps unsurprising, then, that their work has always found an only uneasy home in their native country. Though both are based in Dublin (Harrison, a dancer collaborating with them for the second time, is based in London), none of their shows have actually been made in Ireland. Their first was developed in France, and since 2010 they’ve been making shows in New York. The Work the Work, commissioned by the Chocolate Factory, where it debuted in the spring of 2010, explored the experience of women in an Irish pub, an exegesis of alcohol-fueled self-evisceration and sexual self-loathing. In 2011, they developed The Smell of Want at Abrons, and this year continued that relationship with Wage in collaboration with Project Arts Centre in Dublin.
In person it would be easy to dismiss the seriousness they bring to their work, which often features its own sort of cheeky humor amidst more complicated moments. Jokey with a melodic Irish brogue, the pair (who, full disclosure, are friends) come off as typically carefree Irish women. But their work up-ends those sorts of expectations (even in their speech, which is often delivered dispassively as though a conscious attempt to avoid the sort of literary airs the accents provide), offering occasionally profoundly troubling sequences, such as the masturbation scene in The Work the Work (performed so mechanically it was utterly de-eroticized) or Stapleton dispassively recounting the story of her mother’s death in The Smell of Want.
In Wage, the pair decided to explore a host of economic issues in relation to gender, drawing on everything from John B. Keane’s classic play The Field, their own experiences growing up, and prostitution to explore wage inequality in relation to gender.
“It’s nice as an artist to call a piece ‘wage’ because of this idea that you’re supposed to work for free,” Fitzgerald commented, “because you do it out of love. Because it’s what you want to do. But you have to pay rent.”
From the point of purchasing your ticket, the question of inequality is made manifest. Based on a rough approximation of the inequality between women’s wages in the US and men’s, people identifying as female pay $12, whereas those identifying as male pay $15. As no one will be policing you for the price you pay–even at the box office–the temptation to save a few dollars is explicitly intended, which relates to the second catch: the degree to which box office revenues relate to the artists’ own compensation.
“Within our budget constraints, we were like, what do we have control over? Where can we get people to think about how gender interacts in their own life? So you’re kind of putting in their hands, your own wage,” said Fitzgerald. “I hope people do play around with it and take the chance. It’s one of those things where it could be humbling or it could be humiliating to reflect on.”
As usual, all three artists will perform nude, a choice that’s become something of the company’s signature feature, although they assure me they discuss the whether or not to continue in that mode with each new production. In the main, it’s related to their desire to challenge the sort of representations of ideal body types driven by mass media. In The Smell of Want, the three performers were joined by a chorus of five other performers of diverse ages and body types. In the US, the chorus was female; in Ireland, it was male.
More specifically, though, the choice allows them to foreground issues of anatomical gender as a way of exploring and deconstructing the way such differences affect daily behavior. As Fitzgerald explains, “You can’t play around with it unless it’s there. To be naked is like, ‘This is my anatomical body.’ It’s not editing my movement or curtailing my movement selection in the way it does on the street, or it does in a shop, or when I’m at my cousin’s wedding.”
“I wish gender was less relevant,” she continued. “Anatomical gender shouldn’t have a bearing on who you sleep with, how much money you make, what career choice you have, what you education is, how your parents treat you.”